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Social History of the Highlands

Akin to some of the superstitions we have noticed, but differing from them in many essential respects, is the belief - for superstition it cannot well be called - in the Second Sight, by which, as Dr. Johnson observes, "seems to be meant a mode of seeing, super-added to that which nature generally bestows," and consists of "an impression made either by the mind upon the eye, or by the eye upon the mind, by which things distant or future are perceived, and seen as if they were present." This "deceptive faculty" is in Gaelic called Traibhse, i.e. a spectre, or a vision, and is neither voluntary nor constant, but consists "in seeing an otherwise invisible object, without any previous means used by the person that sees it for that end; the vision makes such an impression upon the seer, that they neither see nor think of anything else, except the vision, as long as it continues; and then they appear pensive or jovial, according to the object which was represented to them."

It has been observed by lookers-on, that those persons who saw, or were supposed to see, a vision, always kept their eye-lids erect, and that they continued to stare until the object vanished. Martin affirms that he and other persons that were with them observed this more than once, and he mentions an instance of a man in Skye, the inner part of whose eye-lids was turned so far upwards during a vision, that after the object disappeared he found it necessary to draw them down with his fingers, and would sometimes employ others to draw them down, which he indeed, Martin says, "found from experience to be the easier way."

The visions are said to have taken place either in the morning, at noon, in the evening, or at night. If an object was seen early in the morning, its accomplishment would take place in a few hours thereafter. If at noon, that very day. If in the evening, perhaps that night; if after the candles were lighted, the accomplishment would take place by weeks, months, and sometimes years, according to the time of night the vision was seen.

As the appearances which are said to have been observed in visions and their prognostics may prove curious to the general reader, a few of them shall be here stated, as noted by Martin.

When a shroud was perceived about one, it was a sure prognostic of death. The time was judged according to the height of it about the person. If not seen above the middle, death was not expected for the space of a year, and perhaps some months longer; and as it was frequently seen to ascend higher towards the head, death was concluded to be at hand within a few days, if not hours.

If a woman was seen standing at a man's left hand, it was a presage that she would be his wife, whether they were married to others, or unmarried at the time of the apparition.

If two or three women were seen at once standing near to a man's left hand, she that was next to him would undoubtedly be his wife first, and so on, whether all three, or the man, were single or married at the time of the vision or not.

It was usual for the Seers to see any man that was shortly to arrive at the house. If unknown to the Seer he would give such a description of the person he saw as to make him to be at once recognised upon his arrival. On the other hand, if the Seer knew the person he saw in the vision, he would tell his name, and know by the expression of his countenance whether he came in a good or bad humour.

The Seers often saw houses, gardens, and trees, in places where there were none, but in the course of time these places became covered with them.

To see a spark of fire fall upon one's arm or breast, was a forerunner of a dead child to be seen in the arms of those persons. To see a seat empty when one was sitting on it, was a presage of that person's immediate death.

There are few persons, if any, who pretend to this faculty, and the belief in it is almost generally exploded. Yet it cannot be denied that apparent proofs of its existence have been adduced which have staggered minds not prone to superstition. When the connection between cause and effect can be recognised, things which would otherwise have appeared wonderful and almost incredible, are viewed as ordinary occurrences. The impossibility of accounting for such an extraordinary phenomenon as the alleged faculty, on philosophical principles, or from the laws of nature, must ever leave the matter suspended between rational doubt and confirmed scepticism.

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